Published by Action Asia Magazine, Oct- Nov, 1996

DANCING WITH OTELAI

By Bicycle in Inner Mongolia

by Pamela Logan

I had an appointment with the Khan.

No, not just any Khan, but the Khan, Khan of Khans. The one who led his Golden Horde out of the steppe, the one who stomped over passes, romped over deserts, and flew like a firestorm across central Asia all the way to eastern Europe. The Khan who built the greatest empire the world has ever seen. The Great Khan. Genghis Khan.

That Khan.

I and a few thousand other pilgrims were slowly converging on Ejin Horo Banner, whose name means "enclosure of the Emperor" in Mongolian. In the past, worshippers trekked to this spot on the back of sturdy Mongol horses. Times have changed and nowadays they use minibuses, Landcruisers, and Beijing Jeeps.

All except me. I was coming by mountain bike.

Okay, so I was slightly demented to be crossing Inner Mongolia on a mountain bike in March. But I had biked in China before--mostly in the country's wide-open West--and was therefore in practice. This foray into Inner Mongolia was part of my long-term and distinctly unofficial project to explore China's exotic frontiers. In between my responsibilities as Dir ector of Research for the Hong Kong-based China Exploration & Research Society, I had managed to log more than a thousand km in the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Xinjiang. Now I had a well-seasoned bike and yen to get even further off the beaten track. Guide books had neglected Inner Mongolia so much that I knew it was a place with possibilities.

My destination was Jenghis Khan's "mausoleum"--although almost no one believes his remains are really here. No matter. It's still a monument to their hero, and Mongolians come regardless. On the 23rd day of the third lunar month they come: in business suits and track suits, in lama's skirts and robes of azure silk. They carry wine to drink in the Khan's honor and slaughtered sheep to place on the altar before his crypt. Some bring nothing at all, but still they come.

The Great Sacrifice is held in spring, and spring is a miserable season on the Gobi. I had expected cold but didn't consider wind, and certainly didn't figure on blinding sandstorms dogging my path all along the way. Luckily, I had plenty of time, and the few days of good weather were just enough.

What I was learning had turned upside down everything I expected of Mongolians. I expected to find a stern, exacting people--men in silent communion with the limitless steppe on which they live, women rearing their children in the image of their warrior forefathers. What I got was completely different.

"You must drink the wine," one of my new friends whispered to me at my first Mongolian party, "otherwise he'll keep singing all night!" We were in a yurt--one of those round, felt-covered tents that are the traditional dwelling of nomadic tribes across Central Asia. Nowadays they are rare in Inner Mongolia, but once they were a ubiquitous sight. This particular yurt was set on sidewalk in capital of Otog Banner where it functioned as a pub for local Mongolians.

The yurt's owner was standing before me, his outstretched hands holding a blue silk scarf and a bowl of clear liquid. He had just finished a loud and hearty stanza of traditional song. Lesson One: Mongolians love to sing, and to them, song and drink are inseparable.

I took the bowl in my hands, steeled myself, and poured cool liquid lava into my belly. "Wine" it certainly was not; from its industrial-strength bouquet and its 160-proof kick I guessed it must be baijiu--Chinese whiskey. I returned the bowl, it was refilled, and the singing-drinking exchange moved onto another pair of guests.

After a few rounds, the scarf and bowl came around to me. "Sing an American song!" they begged.

Let me tell you something about Mongolians: You can't--you just can't!--say no to these people. It doesn't work. They won't hear you. They believe that, more important than anything else including God, King, and Country, it's their mission on earth to make sure you have a good time. Besides, Mongolians won't believe that such a wretched, pitiable human being exists as one who can't sing, for Mongolians are born belting out tunes over the wide-open spaces of the steppe. I would have to show them that Americans are different.

I picked a blues song, thinking that its soulful strains would carry across the language and culture gap. As I opened my mouth I saw a ring of happy, anticipatory faces. Then it came: "Swing low, sweet chariot..." I croaked, and the faces suddenly fell. In my hands was the whisky-filled bowl, offered to the man sitting opposite. He snatched it from me and downed the booze in one swig. I closed my mouth, to everyone's obvious relief, and handed the bowl and scarf to the woman sitting next to me.

That night I began an informal research project into Methods for Alcohol Avoidance at Mongolian Parties. Being female helps, but it's not enough. One trick is to wait until their attention is elsewhere, then jiggle the bowl so that the contents slosh out. Pleas of a sick stomach work for one or two rounds, as do requests for beer instead of whiskey. But it's not easy, and I welcome contributions by interested readers to this worthy field of investigation.

The next morning, feeling a little wobbly, I pedalled out of there and on to my next adventure.

The road north from Otog Town is rough--little more than gravel sprinkled haphazardly over the sand of the Gobi. It passes through the heart of the Ordos, which is a league (prefecture) of Inner Mongolia. The Ordos is hemmed by the Great Wall to the south and the Yellow River to the north; girt by such durable geographic boundaries, the Ordos has developed its own distinct brand of Mongolian culture.

During most of its long history, the Ordos has had the bad luck of being a fertile and strategic buffer between two bristling empires. For two thousand years, Mongolians and Chinese politely took turns overrunning it. By the early 20th century the Chinese had won, but incessant warring and a weak central government had taken their toll. The Ordos was a wretched, bandit-infested land rung dry by rapacious feudal princes and corrupt, parasitic lamas.

That's all changed now. Since Mao Zedong's communists took over in 1949, the Ordos has been cleaned up. Bandits and warlords are gone, and lamas (who have only recently reappeared on the scene after a long period of repression) concern themselves only with religion. Mongolians and Chinese don't always love each other, but they manage to live peacefully side by side, and intermarriage is common.

Before I came to the Ordos, I blithely imagined that society here is divided into two neat halves: settled Chinese and nomadic Mongolians. But it isn't that simple. Lesson two: beware of ethnic generalizations in the Ordos. Nomadism is virtually extinct; everyone lives in permanent houses now; moreover in the last few decades many Mongolians have become educated, learned professions, and become city-dwellers.

In the countryside, choice of livelihood is driven not by race, but by economics. Long ago many Chinese settled here hoping to put the steppe under the plow, but poor soil has made agriculture a dicey proposition. It's not uncommon, therefore, to find Chinese living as herdsmen just like their Mongolian neighbors. Influence works both ways, and some Mongolians have taken up farming.

The ecosystem of the Ordos is fragile and changing. Archeological evidence shows that the Ordos was once much wetter and warmer than it is now, and its inhabitants may well have been among the first farmers in Asia. But around 1500 BC the land turned dry, becoming what Mongols call classic "gobi"--arid, sparsely vegetated, gravelly land that is useless for agriculture but good for grazing sheep, goats, horses, and camels.

Lately the Ordos' population has begun to outstrip the land's meager resources. Despite the truckloads of fertilizer that go into the Ordos every year, its soil is dying. And even where no plow has ever touched, overgrazing is destroying once-verdant pastures. Now the Ordos is on the verge of total desertification. The government is well aware of this problem; widespread tree- planting has reduced the fierce winds, slowing movement of sand dunes that threaten to bury what little useful pasture that remains. Yet these non-native trees bring their own problems, and no one is sure what the long-term consequences will be. With a rising population and a dropping water table, the Ordos has difficult days ahead.

Desert is what I found under my tires as I rode north across Otog Banner on an unpaved track. A steady head-wind battered me, and sometimes I had to dismount to push my bike through sand dunes that had drifted across the road. But I didn't mind. The day was fine, the distance not far, and a slower pace gave me more time to enjoy the desert.

Pam Logan and obo
With an obo marking a hill

By now, after more than a week in Inner Mongolia, I had met a lot of Mongolians, but I didn't start to feel like a Mongol unless I was crossing the Gobi's vast empty spaces. Riding a horse is undoubtedly best, but pedaling a bike is pretty good. In springtime the Gobi Desert is an endless plain of sand sprouting with withered grass and leafless bushes as far as the eyes can see. No wonder Mongolians have such sharp eyes; everything in their world is far: a runaway horse, a grazing camel, a house perched on an ever-so-gentle rise, clouds dancing over the horizon. As time went on I came to sense subtle changes in the desert: its slope and texture, its faded green and brown pastels. A greener spot means underground water and this, to a herdsman, is good.

Halfway along, I came to a crossroads where a highway maintenance station was built in the middle of nothing. The Chinese who inhabited it invited me inside for lunch. While I sat eating their humble fare of stewed mutton and rice, outside the wind suddenly increased, and the sky went black.

"Guafeng," muttered one of the men as he stood before the window. Lesson Three is the meaning of this all-important word: icy winds screeching from the north, lacerating airborne sand, and visibility shrinking to nothing. I settled down for a long siege.

Before long a lonesome wail surrounded the brick house, which was stoutly built with a thick windowless wall facing Siberia. Gradually the keening grew into a dull, surging roar, as if ocean waves and not mere air were threatening to hammer the house to dust. Outside, grit flew and trees flailed. I was glad to be indoors, and that kindness to travelers is a enduring tradition on the Gobi.

After a couple of hours the storm unexpectedly died down. Rested now, and charged with new energy, I set out with my bike again. After three hours of wallowing on the sandy road, at last I reached a small town huddled in the lee of a sandstone hill. As I pedalled into the outskirts, Buddhist monks in flowing crimson robes came out to great me.

After 1949, monks almost disappeared in Inner Mongolia, but since the 1980s when China's government decided to tolerate religion, Buddhism has been making a minor comeback. The cities hold few believers, but in the hinterland there are enough to support a few scattered monasteries. Xin Zhao, where I had just arrived, had about 20 monks, most of them old men. They were hard at work reviving their ancient traditions--virtually identical to those of Tibet--here in this lonely, windswept corner of desert.

As an honored (if unexpected) guest, I was put up in a room on the monastery grounds and given all the tea, millet, cheese, and noodles I could eat. By day I went to the temple--a simple brick building erected to replace the original destroyed during the Cultural Revolution--to listen to the monks chant. I studied the religious paintings and books stored in the monastery, so familiar to me from travels on the Tibetan plateau. From villagers I learned fragments of Ordos Mongolian, and worked on my Chinese, which virtually everyone there knew. When the sand-storms eased I went for walks in the hills.

At Xin Zhao I learned to eat Mongolian-style: pocket knife in one hand, a joint of sheep in the other, mutton-fat lubricating my fingers and lips as I quickly reduced the joint to dry bones. This simple ritual made me feel part of the numberless nomadic tribes that have for millennia wandered Central Asia.

At Xin Zhao, time seemed to stand still, and before I knew it nearly a week had passed. The Spring Sacrifice of Jenghis Khan was now fast approaching, and I hurried back on the road.

First traveling to the Ordos capital of Dongsheng, I then went south to Ejin Horo Banner, pedalling in the tracks of countless pilgrims. It was one of the Ordos' better roads, paved to accommodate tourists and others going to pay their respects to the Great Khan. Groves of hand-planted trees marked the borders of fields, for in the eastern Ordos many pastures have been given over to farming. After 44 kilometers I knew I was getting close. Then, through a grove of willows, I spotted a high brick wall, and beyond it a triumphal blue-and-yellow dome rising from the summit of a hill: Jenghis's great monument.

Legend has it that the Khan himself chose this spot to be his eternal home. They say that one day he was riding through the Ordos, accompanied by a contingent of mounted warriors, when he happened into a valley of extraordinary beauty. The Great Khan declared that it would be his final resting place, but when death actually came in summer of the year 1227, he was in the middle of a military campaign against the rebellious Tanguts in far-off northwest China. His lieutenants decided that the Khan's burial place and even his death itself must be a state secret. Accordingly, as the bearers carried his corpse in procession to a burial ground somewhere in northern Mongolia, they slew every living creature they met upon the road. The Khan was buried in a carefully concealed grave, which to this day lies undiscovered.

Sometime later, at Ejin Horo a cenotaph was erected in the Khan's honor, and the Seven Banners of the Ordos charged with the responsibility for its care. Originally the monument consisted of several great tents housing a crypt and assorted relics--bows, silver-plated saddles, swords--said to belong to the Khan. In 1955 the government replaced the tents with three permanent structures: domes, decorated in Mongolian style. The interior has a gallery of huge murals that tell Jenghis Khan's life story. In the climactic panel the burly, square-jawed conqueror appears sitting on a high throne, surrounded by representatives of all his conquered peoples; their faces span the rainbow that is Eurasia. Part museum and part shrine, the complex at Ejin Horo is an enduring place of worship for Mongolians.

The tiny town was buzzing with activity when I arrived. As if emerging from a long winter's hibernation, everyone was outside busily sweeping, polishing, and cleaning. The guest-house windows were being shined to perfection by housekeepers garbed in brilliant robes. And bus-loads of guests were arriving every hour.

That night I was visited by a smiling trio of Mongols, emissaries of a group of teachers from Wushen Banner who were staying next door. They asked, would I like to come with them to a dance? At their words my head was filled with visions of colorful ethnic twirls and flourishes, an authentic Mongolian celebration. My answer was: of course!

The teachers had a mini-bus to take us to the venue, which was outside the town. We pulled up to a building, and when I spotted a sign with the word "karaoke," suddenly my heart fell. So much for traditional ethnic dance, I thought. Inside the place was a twirling reflecting ball hanging from the ceiling, colored lights, and an enormous battered boom-box. Someone started a tape, and the schmaltzified strains of "Thus Spake Zarathustra" blared out.

Couple formed and began two-stepping in time to the music, which briskly evolved into a John Phillips Sousa march. Soon the floor was full of shuffling pairs. A jazzed-up "Auld Ang Syne" came on, followed by "The Blue Danube." Then Otelai asked me to dance.

He was short and barrel-chested, strong as a bull, dressed in jeans and a much-worn denim jacket. He had untidy, razor-cut hair and a square face that seemed oddly familiar. "I'm called Otelai," he shouted into my ear in hoarse Chinese, afterwards saying no more.

The music came faster, and Otelai's feet speeded up. Striding in perfect time to the music as he whirled me around the room, he made it impossible for me to miss a step for he was practically lifting me off the floor. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the teachers' prim, disdainful glances at the boorish usurper who was monopolizing their honored guest. He wasn't one of them, I realized. But who was he?

The music stopped, and Otelai went off to grab a slug of beer. But before I had even caught my breath he was back again, the next dance was starting, and he was begging for another turn. Without waiting for an answer, he took my hand; we were off and flying again.

Faster the music came, and the wild Mongolian dervish was spinning me with ever greater speed and abandon. Soon we were colliding with other couples and bumping into furniture. In the middle of the blur, I heard his voice in my ear: "Please excuse the Ordos-- we're so poor and undeveloped."

I said, "That doesn't matter. You are still good people." At this his grip tightened and his hand became warmer.

At 10:30 the party ended, and Otelai disappeared as mysteriously as he had come. The teachers and I piled back into the mini-bus and returned to our guest house at the Jenghis Khan Monument.

The following day was the Great Spring Sacrifice. Each of the Seven Banners of the Ordos sent representatives to present sacrifices at the shrine of Jenghis, and hundreds of ordinary people made their own small offerings. All day long, parties of reverent Mongolians were carrying sheep carcasses, silk scarves, brick tea, milk, and bottled liquor to give to their Khan. Kneeling, they sipped sacred wine and repeated the incantations of a tall, dour-faced priest. I'll never forget the solemn faces of a people who, even seven hundred years later, still worship their ancestral hero.

And I'll never forget when the ghost of Jenghis Khan asked me to dance.

Travel tips: Of the seven banners of the Ordos, at least four are open for independent travelers: Otog, Ejin Horo, Dalad, and Jungar. Things in China are changing fast, so check for new openings at Public Security in Dongsheng, the Ordos capital. It is easily reached by bus from Baotou, which itself lies some 14 train-hours or a short flight from Beijing. Outside Dongsheng expect conditions to be basic and food simple. Outside Dongsheng and Ejin Horo, foreigners are extremely rare. Almost no one speaks English, but Japanese is a common third language among Mongolians. Buses ply all routes mentioned here. If biking, allow lots of time to get over the sandy terrain. If you're caught at dark between towns, families will be delighted to put you up. The Jenghis Khan Mausoleum has guest yurts where visitors may stay as well as a guest house. Summer and early autumn are the best seasons for travel in Inner Mongolia.


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